Thursday, May 25, 2006

6 Leopards in 24 hours in the Kruger

At Easter Bill and Sally McClelland made their first trip to Africa. On their tailor made guided tour they started at Bushbuck River House in Livingstone, crossed to Botswana for a couple of days in Chobe National Park, then returned to Livingstone for a further night, before an onward flight to Johannesburg. From there we drove to Kruger National Park.
It is always a bonus for people to see leopard during their first safari, but as Bill reports below the Kruger was very generous...

Now I know that going "on safari" is not just about counting the big 5 (oh, and as well as the 6 leopards we saw 3 rhino, and too many elephants and buffalo to count, hurrah for the big five!...oops) but although I was maybe almost as excited by the hyena nursing two young right by the side of the track, and by the dwarf-mongoose den (set?) in the termite mound, you have to say that leopard are pretty special. So how did we get to see 6?

Hyena and mother by the side of the road.

It didn't start too well on the big cat front - we had two wonderful days at Letaba - plenty of elephants - we were even seriously threatened by one old male (goes by the name of Flop-ear - if you've been up there recently you may have seen him). We went on an excellent night drive having heard tales of lions roaring on volume 11 right next to the carrier, but again, no cats. Then down to Skukuza - a long drive, the highlight being a picnic lunch by a dam which we had entirely to ourselves for an hour. That would be Alan, Oriel, Sal and me, a buffalo, a crocodile and a very inquisitive giraffe. This lone giraffe had more tics than you could shake a very large mopane stick at, but he was very brave for one of his species (make that "extremely skittish" in terms of any other animal). We even got out the Land Rover and wandered about (very carefully, and don't email this contribution to the park rangers). But again, no cats.

Lunch stop shared with a giraffe

But just as we were about to arrive at Skukuza at about half an hour to gates, along the river road we saw a number of cars stopped by some river-cliff trees. The usual thing happened when you ask why someone is stopped - "Don't know, everyone else is stopped, so I did..." and by the time 3 people have said this you wonder if there's actually anything at all. Then someone said (after adressing us in Afrikaans - which was flattering....sort of....) "Someone says they saw a leopard". So we stop and try to get a place - which was difficult as half the people in the area are obviously on this road to the camp at 5-30. So Alan manoeuvred back and forth and got us a possible place in a little pull-in above the river. Everything went quiet and lots of people left. Guys! No! Never be in a hurry when you're hoping to see animals! Eventually Alan reversed out to try another spot. We didn't really have much hope, but then Oriel shouted (or maybe had the same effect) "look, a tail!" And apparently (I say "apparently" because I saw nothing) a little black and white tail-tip was moving along above the long grass. So Al went to an identical pull-in above the river on the other side of the trees. And suddenly there was a feline head looking out right at us - the coast must have been clear enough because out jumped a female, who ran across the pull-in and into some thicker trees.

Marvellous! Sorted! Tick that one off! Knowing how rare leopard are in the Kruger we though that might be it for our trip. So we set off at 6 next morning with hope, but feeling that we might have had our luck for the trip. Travelling along a road to Berg-en-Dal (I bet everybody else calls it Hag-en-Das too) I suddenly saw a face looking at me from the long grass. "Back! Back" - I'm sure I absolutely bellowed this at a long-suffering Alan. We backed up and there was a leopard...and there was another leopard...and there was another leopard! A mother with 2 very large cubs, presumably. We had a good sight of them, but they were in long grass. Wonderful - we congratulated ourselves on 4 leopards! 5 minutes down the road we passed one of those private operators in the military-style carriers. We exchanged info, and he told us about a leopard he'd seen about 10k away on a kopje. So we diverted there, and there were several vehicles looking at a patch of long grass. Then suddenly up stood a magnificent male leopard. Our poor position was suddenly the best in the convoy as he walked towards us completely unconcerned. We had a long, excellent viewing of a variety of leopard behaviour, including marking his territory, and standing on two legs trying to grab something in a tree-branch, till he eventually wandered away. 5 leopards! What had we done to deserve this? We arrived at Berg-en-Dal and had a rest, then drove out for a late afternoon viewing....You can guess the next bit - on the way back to the camp Oriel again cried "Leopard, back, back!" This time we had a leopard to ourselves. This male again eventually strolled right past us, sparing us only a short glare on his evening stroll to an impala supper.

Male leopard no.5

So that was our 6 leopards in 24 hours - can anyone beat this? Oh, and next morning a seventh strolled right by the Land Rover... but then you maybe didn't want to hear that... But if you're jealous, don't be, just get even by getting out to Africa with Alan and Oriel! And we didn't see a lion in 2 weeks in Africa - and if anyone can say why we saw 7 leopards in Kruger (pop 1,000 leopards) and no lions (pop 2,000 lions, on average twice as big and half as shy as leopards), then let me know and maybe we'll see them on our next visit.

Botswana tour - Central Kalahari, Okavango Delta, Moremi, Chobe and Victoria Falls

CATS, CATS and Curiousity

On our latest Botswana tour we were treated to some of the best cat sightings we have ever had. Tour B2946 was 20 days in duration and it is camping based because this offers some of the best chances you will have to experience the wilderness of Botswana and, along with this wilderness, high quality game viewing.

The safari started in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Alan Baird, the guide, was optimistic that the game would be good, due the exceptionally good rains during the last few months, but nothing could have prepared the group for the fantastic cheetah sightings that were to follow. On arrival in Deception valley, the grass was still long and green. The herbivores, particularly springbok and gemsbok, were evident in large herds. The springbok are a major attraction for cheetah and on arrival on the first afternoon, eagle eyed Michael, one of the guests, spotted a cheetah lying in the longer grass on the valley side. Closer inspection revealed five further cheetahs, with the group consisting of one mature female and five sub-adult offspring. There were four males and one female amongst the offspring, with the males practising typically naughty adolescent behaviour. After a bout of playing together one decided that closer inspection of our vehicle was necessary. In typically ‘curiosity killed the cat mode’ it decided to jump on top of our trailer and see what was inside. You can imagine every body’s astonishment, as usually cheetahs are very timid towards vehicles and tend to shy away. However this one was set on a full examination, having given the trailer the ‘once over’ it turned to the Landrover, hopping agilely on to the bonnet in order to make eye contact with all inside. The game watchers had now become the watched. The level of curiosity was such that we hastily closed the windows. After watching them play for over an hour, without another vehicle around, we let them return to their slumbers in the grass before moving on to make camp in this pristine wilderness environment.

The following morning we thought we would see if the cheetahs were still around and whether they had springbok on their mind. Sure enough, not too far from the previous afternoon’s sighting, we found what we thought were the same cheetahs. This time there were only four evident and no one could explain what had happened to the other two. After a few unsuccessful and rather half-hearted attempts at chasing springbok they decided to walk off into the bush. They were altogether much more circumspect and less bold and we were still left baffled about what had happened to the two missing individuals.

All was revealed as we continued our game drive as less than a kilometre further on we came across the group of six cheetahs again. The group of four was a different family altogether. The six had had a more successful morning having killed, and devoured very quickly, a springbok. The adolescents were still fighting over the remaining few bones and fur. Sure enough after the playing was over curiosity reared it’s head once again and our two bold young males decided to make another foray on to the vehicles bonnet. We were ready for them this time and it was just as well as one tried to jump into the window only to find a pane of glass impeding it’s progress. I think he had a bit of a sore head after this and went back to play with his siblings. The mother had had
enough of their antics and lead them off into the bush at the side of the valley. We will certainly be looking for these cheetahs again, to see if this behaviour will become a common part of their life styles when they finally leave the mother.

The next element of the safari was a four day fly-in, into the heart of the Okavango delta. The guest stay at Gunn’s luxury camp for two nights and two nights are spent camping wild in the bush with local Batswana makoro guides. Water levels were exceptionally high for the time of year and this meant the game was well dispersed, although there were the usual excellent sightings of giraffe, elephant, red lechwe and impala as well as excellent bird-life.

After the Delta we returned back to the Landrover and travelled into Moremi by road. Although high water levels rather hampered game viewing, the undoubted highlight was a beautiful male leopard seen approximately 500 metres from Xakanaxa camp-site. The sighting was somewhat fortuitous and we had to thank some unsuspecting South African campers for it. The South Africans enjoy building camp-fires at least six feet high and the only way to achieve this is to burn huge fallen tree trunks which they drag with their vehicles back to the camp-site. Unbeknown to the South African party their log attracted a rather curious onlooker- a male leopard. As the South African vehicle came towards us I could see clearly that the leopard was chasing behind the vehicle intent on catching the log. I immediately waived their vehicle down to explain that they had a leopard in tow as well as a log, but the driver was dismissive, until he turned his head and found the large cat sitting in the middle of the road behind his vehicle. It was fortunate that they did not tow it right back into camp.

After the long journey from Moremi up to Savuti, in Chobe National Park, we were delighted to complete the cat sequence that had started so well. We had very good lion sightings, although the big pride of 33 seems to have dispersed. It will be interesting to see if they come back together later in the year. Two males formed the highlight of our viewing. It was apparent that they had been fighting, as both were slightly bloodied around their mouths. The cause of the fight was a mature female, in season, which one of the males was not letting out of his sight. They mated frequently whilst the other male looked on enviously from a 100 metres away.

The last location in Botswana was the Chobe River front. Cat sightings continued to be a high standard and unexpected in nature. During the afternoon boat trip a pride of 7 lions were seen drinking at the waters edge. It is not common to see lions from the boat but the high water levels enabled close viewing in the wonderful warm, late afternoon light.

Altogether we were treated to some of the best cat viewing that anyone is likely to encounter. Lets hope the remainder of the season maintains this extraordinarily high standard.

We would like to thank Fiona Stevens for allowing us to use a selection from the many excellent images that she took during this tour.

This tour will be available again in 2007, with departures on 28/4/07 and 30/6/07.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Twabuka Community School building update for May

Pictures 1 & 2 - Spider trusses are put in place to support the tin roof.

Pictures 3 & 4 - Roofing sheets and window frames are put in place.

The school building has continued to make good progress. The roof structure is complete and all the window frames have been put in. Inside all the walls have been rendered and this week the final floor screed will be laid.
Emmanuel, one of our two main skilled builders, is leaving the job this week. His block laying skills are now less in demand, and his brother Foster will complete the remainder of this work. We are very grateful for all the work that Emmanuel has put in, he has worked to a high standard and has been a valued member of the building team.
The building inspector has been very pleased and complementary about the standard of the building.
The work that will remain, after the floor is complete, will be glazing the windows, rendering the outside of the building, fitting the doors and completing the toilet building.
It is now less than 10 weeks before the students from Cooper’s School arrive in Livingstone. During this time they will be planning the work they intend to carry out here. Ideas include painting and decorating the interior of the school, gardening and landscaping and construction of shelves and furniature.

We would like to thank the following Nomad clients who have donated to the project recently:
Pedro and Maria Cardoso
Francis Cunningham and Michael Webster

In addition there is a donation in memory of Connie Wrentmore, who sadly died on 10th April 2006.